It’s tough for Teflers in Germany

On the English Language Gazette (01.06.15, Seite 6) Paul Walsh and Alan McElroy report from Berlin on efforts to improve conditions for freelance EL teachers.

Many ELT teachers in Germany feel isolated and insecure. This is directly related to their working conditions as they are mostly freelancers. Due to Germany’s federal structure and the concentration of wealth in the south, pay varies across the country. But many teachers remain stuck in economic limbo with little chance of improvement.

As well as low pay, freelancers working in various institutions lack the support or camaraderie of fellow teachers. We are invisible to each other, and invisible to the system we work under.

The current situation has two main causes. The first was the general liberalisation of the German labour market by the Schröder federal government (beginning in 2003), and the second involved legal changes that altered the relationship between the state and educational institutions. The retreat of the state and the entrance of the market has led to less security.

In the capital Berlin tertiary education institutions such as universities were once administered by the Education Department of the Berlin Senate. This ensured that the teachers were entitled to state health and pension contributions, as well as holiday pay. However, these links to state government were severed in the late eighties when universities and colleges were granted administrative autonomy, thereby releasing the state from the costs of management and allowing institutions to determine their own employment conditions. This change in the law explains why institutions increasingly employ academic staff on a freelance basis. Cost criteria rule over quality criteria – qualifications, experience and length of service matter less and less.

What about pay and working conditions for Teflers? In Berlin pay in private language schools is between €14 to €18 for a 45-minute hour, while in universities it’s between €25 and €35. Out of this teachers must pay their own health and pension contributions, which many cannot afford. Lesson preparation time, travelling expenses and sickness are not paid. Labour law restricts teachers to working a maximum of eight hours a week in any one institution, so freelancers travel across the city darting from workplace to workplace like itinerants from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

What’s being done? The Bundeskonferenz der Sprachlehrer (BKSL) is an organisation set up four years ago to campaign for freelance language teachers’ rights. Even though it is difficult for teachers to connect with one another the movement is picking up speed. Last November there was an Aktionstag outside the Berlin Senate that was covered favour ably by local media. The motto of the BKSL is ‘Together we are less alone,’ recognising that our voices will never be heard until we speak loudly and in unison.

There’s also the Berlin Language Worker Grassroots Association (Berlin GAS,  ), which was founded, like the BKSL, to combat the insecure working conditions of teachers, and consists mainly of teachers working in private language schools. We organise free social events and workshops for teachers, such as the Lesson Jam. Our reasoning is that by breaking down barriers and connecting we can start to deal with the issues of inequality. By self-organising we become stronger and less isolated.


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